Tobacco farmers smoke indigenous trees to extinction

The high cost of tobacco farming on health and the environment has remained one of the untold stories of the production of the golden leaf in Zimbabwe, reports ANDREW MAMBONDIYANI.

While commercial tobacco farmers depended on electricity and coal to cure tobacco, the “new” farmers have turned to indigenous trees to cure their crop.
While commercial tobacco farmers depended on electricity and coal to cure tobacco, the “new” farmers have turned to indigenous trees to cure their crop.

The lush vegetation is long gone, leaving a mosaic of bare ground. Since 1980 Gutaurare Resettlement Scheme area about 50 kilometres south of the city of Mutare has been among the most preserved resettlement areas, known for its rich assortment of indigenous forests.

The area was one of the earliest resettlement areas, born a few months after the country attained independence. Until recently it was a maize producing area, but the past five years have seen a growing number of tobacco farmers as weather patterns became unpredictable.

Nationwide, the 2013/14 farming season saw the number of tobacco farmers ballooning from around 70,000 the year before to about 90,000.

With the growth of tobacco farming the country is poised to rake in millions of dollars. Since the opening of the tobacco marketing season in February this year, tobacco worth more than$100 million has gone under the hammer at the country’s auction floors.

Lucrative venture

But behind this facade of a growing tobacco farming sector, the lucrative venture has come under international scrutiny as it has resulted massive deforestation. As national and international pressure mounts, President Mugabe intimated that the government might be forced to stop farmers from growing tobacco as the farmers were wiping out indigenous trees to cure the crop.

Addressing people gathered for the Independence Day celebrations at National Sports Stadium in Harare last month, Mugabe said: “We are urging farmers to use coal to cure tobacco, otherwise we are going to stop them from farming tobacco.”

While commercial tobacco farmers depended on electricity and coal to cure tobacco, the “new” farmers have turned to indigenous trees to cure their crop. And it is estimated that on average, it requires about 20 cubic meters cleared from a hectare of wood to produce one tonne of flue-cured tobacco.

Long gone

This is not sustainable as the farmers are depending on indigenous trees which take years to mature. The indigenous forests, which the previous white farmers had jealously protected, are long gone, making way for bare ground in most tobacco farming areas across the country.

Mugabe’s bold statement on the lucrative tobacco farming venture has been received with mixed feelings.

“Yes, tobacco is growing and has changed the lives of many people but we should take cognisance of our future generation. Our children will judge us harshly if we wipe all our indigenous trees for our selfish means. Something should be done as a matter of urgency to preserve our forests,” said Nekias Mkwindidza, a villager in Zimunya area in Mutare district.

Nhema shocked

Though the Tobacco Market Board (TIMB) has made it mandatory for tobacco farmers to have woodlots of exotic trees like gum for curing, many farmers seem not to be interested in investing in the future of tobacco farming.

The former environment minister, Francis Nhema, was shocked by the rate at which tobacco farmers were wiping out indigenous trees, hinting that the government might have to force farmers to switch from the current high paying Virginia tobacco to burley tobacco which does not need wood, coal or electricity for cure.

Nhema told tobacco farmers during a tour of Manicaland, one of the leading tobacco producing regions, last year that ‘the country had limited options of either coming down hard on farmers wiping out indigenous trees or banning the production of high value flue-cured tobacco’.

Besides, deforestation health experts have warned of the mounting threat of green tobacco sickness while human rights experts have accused tobacco farmers of using child labour and pregnant women The growth of smallholder tobacco production has been an indubitable success story in recent years, with about 75 000 farmers delivering to the auction floors, producing nearly 170 million tonnes and raking in about US$630m in revenue.

However the cost of tobacco farming on health and the environment has remained one of the untold stories of tobacco farming in Zimbabwe.

“This has been my life for the past five years,” Tatenda Chimwanda (13) of Zimunya area told this journalist with a weary smile. “I like it because I am helping my parents. If the government force farmers to use coal my parents will not afford it and we will be forced to stop tobacco farming. And it means a bleak future for us,” she added, oblivious of the health threats posed by contact with green tobacco leaves.

Health risks

Tatenda has been helping her parents on their tobacco farm for more than five years. She wakes up early in the morning and before going to school she helps her parents either to harvest or plant or weed tobacco depending on the season. Her parents are among thousands of small scale tobacco farmers in the country, who mushroomed in the past five years.

Health experts say no matter where tobacco farmers work, these individuals experience illnesses through their exposure to pesticides, which cause neurological damage and nicotine, which results in green tobacco sickness.

There are reports that green tobacco sickness occasionally affects those who have direct skin contact with wet tobacco plants. Experts say green tobacco sickness is caused by nicotine poisoning resulting from dermal absorption of dissolved nicotine from the surface of the wet tobacco. But there is little research in this regard in Zimbabwe.

Post published in: Agriculture
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